Category Archives: talking shop

Allow Me To Mansplain…

In the wake of Rep. Akin’s egregious comments about rape and pregnancy, this blog post has started making the rounds.  My first reaction was, “Yeah, that’s terrible that that sort of thing happens to intelligent, capable women; I’m so glad I’ve never had to deal with something like that.”

Then I realized I have.  And I don’t think it’s entirely about being female.

See, I’m a grad student (for a couple weeks more, anyway), and I’m currently the only female grad student in my group.  I’m also the senior grad student in my group, so I have a fair amount of experience in the field.  When it comes to routine, annoying problems, I’ve seen a lot of it.  And I’ve thought about a lot of it.

Yet, for some reason, people in my group don’t always hear what I say.  On several occasions, I’ve made a suggestion to someone having a problem that was either discounted or flat-out ignored. No response. Like the person did not even hear that I had spoken.  And then, maybe later in the meeting, or later in the week, or even a couple weeks later, the same suggestion would be tossed out by one of the (male) principal investigators.  It bears mentioning here that the only female PI at the group meetings is also one of the youngest PIs in our institute.

When the PI brings up this suggestion, it’s considered and almost always agreed to be the best suggestion for the situation, and we’ll all reconvene when it’s been tested because it’s likely that this will fix the problem.  Wait… what?

I’m also not the only person who’s noticed this.  A couple of my friends in the group pointed it out to me after a particularly annoying group meeting where I actually repeated my suggestion a couple of times, only to have no one appear to hear me. I was glad to know someone had, even if they hadn’t made that known at the time. And even more irritating is the fact that at least one of the guys who brought up that “no one listens to Jenn” actually did just that after pointing out that no one listens to my good suggestions.

Okay, enough back story. Am I here to moan about how nobody listens to the poor little women?

Not at all. I will bet that, while this seems to happen to me a disproportionate amount, part of it is because I am a (mere) grad student and the PIs are (wise) PIs.  The thing about scientific discovery is that it is generally a collaboration, especially in experimental physics.  There is just so much going on that you often physically require at least one other person to run all the equipment.  At the very least, you always need to be training a new person for when the senior grad student graduates (or the post-doc finishes his or her appointment).  And often the one who knows the most about the specific experiment is a lowly grad student.

As I finish my graduate career and embark upon my first post doc, I’m trying to keep this in mind. I’ve had too many encounters with post docs who believe they know more than the senior grad student just because of that degree, when in fact, the grad student knows way more about the specific experiment than they do. Heck, at first, pretty much all the grad students know more about the specific experiment than a brand-new post doc. And it’s dangerous. At best, you end up with a post doc who waits for explanation from the PI for everything rather than accepting the word of a grad student; at worst, you have a post doc who breaks things because he or she disregards instructions from a grad student.

So it’s not just about women versus men. It’s about all situations in which one person goes in thinking he or she has more knowledge in an area and therefore doesn’t need to listen all that well to the lower orders. And it’s good that Solnit has put a voice to the phenomenon as it pertains to men correcting women incorrectly.  It’s just “the boring old gender wars.” It’s not you. But the same is true for people experiencing the same frustration due to their age. While it’s a good idea not to get a swelled head about your own importance (especially in grad school), sometimes you’ve been on an experiment for five [expletive] years and, yeah, you know more about the specific electronics used because you built them all (or oversaw them being built).

I guess my parting thought is that this kind of attitude affects the retention of grad students in the sciences.  And, yeah, it’s going to affect the retention of women in the sciences because they get the potential double-whammy of being ignored for gender as well as age. But regardless of either, be confident in your experience. Don’t be afraid to speak up loudly. And know that’s not always you; scientists are full of blind spots and biases just like everyone else.

“So What’s All This Higgs Boson Stuff About?”

I’m sorry, I’m really not the best person to ask.

It’s not that I don’t understand the physics better than the average layperson.  No, that would be a lie.  But sometimes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  I understand what I’ve been told, and what I’ve read.  I probably have a little better understanding of the basic physics behind a lot of things.  But, really, particle physics is not my area of expertise, and I’d worry about misinforming you.

I can tell you that the term “god particle” is misleading.  In fact, it was originally a joke, something that got changed by the publishers to sound more meaningful that it was probably intended.  I can tell you about naming things in physics.  Seriously, it seems like sometimes, 75% of laboratory work is swearing at the problem until it decides to behave.  Or at least until the swearing makes you feel better.  The other 25% often involves a mop.  But maybe that’s just my experience.

Here’s the thing about experimental physics:  We don’t all sit in ivory towers and think about abstract physics concepts all day.  Maybe some theoretical physicists do that.  But the people doing the experiments don’t do all that much physics on any given day.  We fix leaks (vacuum, water, oil, etc.) and electronics.  We fight with vendors and wait expectantly for equipment to be delivered.  We might occasionally get to build or fix a really cool piece of lab equipment, like a laser.  But taking data?  Doing “physics?”  That’s astrological alignment territory.  And if even if we are running things and taking data, a lot of it might be a calibration or something that won’t lead to a major breakthrough, even on the scale of our particular specialty (something that will interest perhaps five people outside our lab, and one of those is a particularly doting parent).

So if you have a special someone in your life, someone who is a dear friend or relative, who happens to have more advanced physics knowledge than the average person, go ahead and ask “Hey, do you know anything about the Higgs boson?”  But don’t expect an in-depth lesson on the building blocks of particle physics and the standard model.  Heck, I have colleagues who think finding the Higgs is kind of boring, because it proves something, and it’s more fun to disprove things.  Perhaps expect a lot of discussion about statistics and sigmas.

But if you are a barista, or a telemarketer, or, well, any casually-encountered person, and the person with whom you are casually encountering mentions a career in physics, you should probably keep your questions about the latest popular science news to yourself.


Science and Fiction

Well, my last two posts have been rant-y things whining about the lot of women in the sciences.  So today I’m going to write something funner*.  Partially inspired by a conversation with a coworker outside a thesis defense-in-progress, and partially inspired by my college friend Lisa’s birthday cake, I’m going to discuss depictions of physical phenomena in fiction.

Lisa’s cake reminded me of the conversation, which was also about the depictions of things/people “falling” into black holes.  Okay, it’s become pretty well-known that black holes don’t actually suck; they do attract things due to massive gravity, but they follow laws of gravitation, and objects can actually orbit a black hole, the same way they would orbit any massive body.  But what happens if you get perilously close to the event horizon?  Do you fall in and disappear?  What about that spaghetti thing?

The conversation went like this:  Supposedly (according to coworker’s general relativity professor), objects crossing the event horizon appear to slow to a near-stop due to the effects of a black hole on the perception of time.  So, to an outside observer, it would just look like the object was perpetually, and ever-more-slowly approaching the event horizon, all the while having its emitted light shifting red, and fading away to the observer.  This is a far cry from most depictions of black holes, which show the unfortunate victim accelerating into the void, perhaps stretching and distorting in some gruesome way.

Think about that, though.  How heartbreaking a sci-fi scene could some director make if s/he, instead of showing someone get sucked into a black hole, showed a victim appear to be slowly drifting away, as perhaps a reddish cast overtakes his features.  The crossing of the event horizon is inevitable, but he’s still there, still apparent to the observers (future mourners).  What can they do?  It might not even be his real facial expression or form, since there’s a difference in their perception from his, due to the massive difference in the fabric of space-time for each.

And what other physical phenomena could actually be made more dramatic by trying to represent them accurately?  I bet one could do something spooky with entanglement (pun intended).  Any other ideas?  Anyone from TV want to hire me as a science consultant?  That could be fun…

*Note that at this point I was utterly confused by the WordPress word processor’s failure to flag this as a misspelled word.  Which is made more amusing by the fact that “WordPress” is flagged.

Kids Are Smarter Than You Think

In a conversation with a colleague about teaching evolution in schools, an interesting point came up.  He brought up that teaching kids that “evolution is just a theory” and that other ideas have equal merit will confuse them and make them think that other ideas about the origins of the world have been explored scientifically when they have not.  My argument is that, while kids may not understand the political ramifications of a particular teaching, they will understand the difference between “Here’s this guy who came up with a theory and tested it in this way,” versus “This is what the Bible tells us.”

Children are, in general, a lot more perceptive than a lot of people give them credit for.  They tend to have a natural inquisitiveness and lack the predefined notions and biases that hold a lot of adults back.  If you are able to frame an idea in terms of something they already understand, it’s pretty easy to get them to grasp what you’re saying, especially if they haven’t already been taught that a certain topic is difficult or intimidating.  They may be bored, but they rarely are just too dumb to get it.

When I was doing a summer internship in the DC area several years ago, as a college student, my flatmates and I went down to the National Air and Space Museum for a day trip.  One of the exhibits, about the universe, had a lot to do with optical and atomic phenomena.  Each of us found something that pertained to our particular summer research topic and had a blast playing with the demos.  When kids were waiting to use the demo, we’d then engage with them, teaching them more about the demo than the display intended, because we had a good tool to introduce the topic.

This later became important when I was a grad student and volunteered to give demonstrations for my institute at Maryland Day, years later.  Not only did I volunteer to give demos, but I also helped brainstorm for demos that would be both interesting and informative.  We needed something accessible enough that a non-scientist could understand it, but relevant enough that we could connect it to the cutting-edge research that scientists at the institute do everyday.  I chose an emission-lamp demo, where we gave people a diffraction grating and let them look at the light from fluorescing gases.  We could show them that the diffraction grating bent different colors of light different amounts, so that when they looked at the light emitted by the excited gas, they would see a disjointed rainbow of sorts.  This showed that elements emit at only certain energies, instead of across the whole spectrum, and it helped visitors understand how spectroscopy and laser interaction with atoms works.

The trick is to wait until you see the confused look on a child’s face to simplify further.  Plenty of kids are able to understand more than you might think, especially if they’re into the sort of thing you’re explaining.  My first published short was a piece on how a 10-year-old taught me about quantum physics while I was his counselor in drama class.  Scientific knowledge and insight comes in different packages, and it’s important not to pre-judge your audience too harshly.

When Scientists Attack

The scientific method is supposed to be impartial, an objective process by which a researcher can come to a conclusion that is uncolored by personal bias.  In reality, scientists are people with personal views and biases.  The problem occurs when they allow their personal biases to infect their scientific research.  I’ve been reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and one of the most fascinating stories so far had to do with the advent of cell culturing experiments.  The first scientist who claimed to have grown an immortal cell sample, Dr. Alexis Carrel, also turned out to be a eugenicist who praised Hitler’s efforts to purify the human race.  The stigma of these views colored the public perception of cell research for years after.  Other scientists have had scandal due to their personal views, which has damaged their credibility and even affected their field, as the public associates the research in general with the personal views of one scientist.

Dr. James Watson, who won a Nobel Prize along with Francis Crick for discovering the structure of DNA, has been a constant and consistent example of a scientist who cannot seem to keep his opinions to himself, even framing them as valid scientific results.  His views on genetic screening and engineering has led to a public perception that the mapping of the human genome leads the way to genetic discrimination and selective abortion of undesirable traits (such as homosexuality or stupidity, rather than diseases).  His defender at one point, Dr. Richard Dawkins, who proposed a gene-centered view of evolution, is not much better of an example, using his position as a scientist to criticize religion and argue that atheism is the only reasonable belief for a person of science.  Both of these scientists did credible and legitimate research in their chosen fields, but have had their scientific accomplishments eclipsed by their unpopular personal views.

Charles Darwin is another scientist who may have altered the perception of his work by connecting it to his personal views.  One motivation for exploring evolution was the idea that evolutionary processes led to the differentiation of the sexes, making men stronger than women.  He argued that races in which men and women seemed less differentiated were less evolved, and therefore was able to use his theory of evolution to “prove” the superiority of the Caucasian race.  Further offshoots of Darwinism led to the eugenics movement and the ideas of social Darwinism, which are both used as justification for racism and other forms of harmful prejudice.

While all of these scientists contributed to their fields in major ways, airing their personal views has damaged their credibility and, in some cases, the credibility of their research or even the field as a whole.  These examples are ones that I try to keep in mind when I am writing about science, either in a technical way, or for a broader audience, so that I avoid injecting my own biases about certain scientific topics into my writing.  In many ways, science writing is similar to journalism in that it must be interesting rather than dry, but still unbiased.

The Most Satisfying Thing

Last Wednesday, a review committee from the organization that funds my research visited the university.  I presented a poster, and also invited my father to come and see the lab and the poster.  It was interesting, since my dad is a mechanic and has little formal physics background beyond what he learned in high school, but his intelligence definitely leans towards the quantitative, so he’s very interested in what I do.  So I spent most of the time explaining what my research is, and some of the general physics concepts behind it.

One of the big ones was bosons versus fermions.  He kept thinking of them as specific subatomic particles, so I explained it again in terms of dogs and cats.  There are dogs and there are cats, but there are also different kinds of dogs and different kinds of cats.  So you wouldn’t say you have fermions and electrons, because electrons are a type of fermion.

Later on this weekend, I heard him on the phone with his sister, talking about seeing the lab, and I listened to him explain some of the things that I explained to him.  His sister is a scientists, a chemist, so she has a basic understanding of a lot of the general concepts.  Dad didn’t parrot back exactly what I had said, but he did give a pretty decent explanation of the general workings of the lab.  I felt kind of proud of myself that I had been able to explain things clearly enough that he felt comfortable explaining them back to someone with a higher level of physics knowledge than he has, and get things right.

I realized that listening to someone to whom I’d explained something re-explain it to someone else was one of the most satisfying things about explaining my work to a non-scientists.  It is not enough to see the utterly lost look leave someone’s face; it goes so much further when you realize that he’s actually gotten it enough to pass the information along.  I sometimes wonder how authors, both fiction and non-fiction, feel about book clubs.  If I ever did write a popular science book, I would want to tour around to book club groups discussing my book and just sit in a corner without telling them who I was, so that I could hear how the audience understood my work and communicated it to someone else.  If there are any authors reading this, do you feel the same way?

On Writing and Audiences

Lately, I’ve started taking on some projects writing about physics experiments for a broader audience.  One piece I’m writing is for the general news section of a website, and the other is for news shared with collaborators and colleagues who are not necessarily in the same field, but are probably scientists or engineers.  This has gotten me thinking about how to gauge the audience of a piece and how to alter my explanations for a given audience.  It’s harder than it seems; as I’ve mentioned before, different words have different meanings to scientists versus non-scientists.

The first thing to think about is just how much science education the reader is likely to have had.  This seems obvious, but I think a lot of scientists, myself included, forget that most people have never had a class that covers quantum mechanics.  Think about how much advanced physics involves a reference to quantum mechanics and then think about how you would explain it without that knowledge.  Yikes, right?  So the biggest difference between the audiences for my two writing pieces is that one audience will recognize various quantum mechanics concepts, and another may not.  Now, plenty of people, especially those browsing science news websites, will have heard of certain ideas before, but they will not have been in the context of a class.

In the absence of formal knowledge of the advanced concepts, I find I fall back on analogies a lot.  No, none of them are perfect, but they’re a good way to give the rough idea of a concept without getting into “well, the math works out that….”  And analogies work regardless of the type of audience, as long as you have an idea what will be familiar and resonant with them.  For example, today I explained bosons and fermions in terms of dogs and cats.  Bosons and fermions aren’t specific elementary particles, but instead a way of classifying them.  So maybe a proton is a Persian cat and an electron is a tabby.  But they’re both cats (fermions).  This analogy has the fun quality of being extended because cats are solitary (Fermi exclusion) and dogs travel in packs (Bose condensation).  You can use more technical analogies for more technical audiences, but the concept is the same.  Compare an unfamiliar thing to something that the audience finds familiar and non-threatening.

Finally, when I’m writing for or talking to a general audience, one whose background I don’t necessarily know, I like to think about something David Kestenbaum said in a talk he gave at my university.  He said that someone once told him to think of the audience as that weird uncle who corners you at Christmas.  He isn’t stupid, but he probably hasn’t had higher than high school physics and he might be a little drunk.  In general, people like to hear things they already know, so if you underestimate the level of your audience, you probably won’t be chastised for aiming less technical rather than more.

Explaining Your Research

One of these days, I’d like to write a book called Explaining Your Research: A practical field guide.  It would include chapters on the various situations in which a scientist might find him- or herself where he or she might be required to explain about his or her research.  Since I am a physicist, I would likely focus on explaining physics concepts, and trying to communicate physics research in such situations.  Then, I would probably share anecdotes.

Of course, the bulk of the book would come from the fact that different situations require different explanations.  I mean, sure, you can corner a relative at a family holiday and bore them to tears for hours trying to explain the nuances of quantum mechanics, for example, but what about the well-meaning casual acquaintance?  Or the person who sets up his mat next to yours in yoga class?  How do you give an “elevator pitch” style summary of a subject that requires years of introductory coursework to even understand?

No, I haven’t actually answered all these questions myself, although I have learned a lot of it.  For example, avoid the word “quantum” in conversations at yoga studios.  Trust me.  Also, know your audience.  I happen to know that my mother loves to Google and has basically done her own online research of every topic I’ve mentioned in relation to my work, so I can get into some pretty deep topics with her.  She may not understand all of it, but she enjoys learning what she can.  Other relatives, even if they have more formal education, haven’t brushed up on as much of the current events or jargon of my field, so I start with the basics and hone down to a level that seems slightly uncomfortable.  That way, they feel exposed to something new, without feeling completely agape.

It also helps to admit that a lot of physics, especially experimental physics, is kind of an art.  I mean, I can explain the theoretical mechanism behind how a laser works, but when thinking about how my laser actually works, I tend to resort to voodoo and magic.  People who work with computers or cars understand this because computers and cars have some of the same idiosyncrasies.  Or cooking.  One person making a recipe can have a completely different result than another.  It’s about finesse.

Speaking of “finesse,” another thing to remember is that certain words mean something different in science than they do to the general public.  This gets scientists in trouble when they try to interact with politicians or the media because words like “uncertainty” or “error” mean something specific and not “we got it wrong,” which is what non-scientists tend to understand from them [this has a good table of other examples].  By recognizing this, scientists should try to use words in the way the layperson will understand them, rather than trying to make that person understand it the scientific way.  That way, semantics won’t hold back a conversation that is already difficult to understand.